Samples & Downloads
William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord
Praeludium (FVB 117) (attr Byrd) [1:26]
Fantasia No. 2 in G (MB XXVIII,62) [9:20]
Praeludium to the Fancie in a minor (MB XXVII,12) [0:50]
Fantasia in a minor (MB XXVII,13) [8:12]
Praeludium in C (MB XXVII,24) [1:02]
Fantasia in C (MB XXVII,25) [6:14]
Fantasia in g minor (MB LV,55) [4:16]
Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in G (MB XXVIII,64) [9:22]
Ut, mi, re (MB XXVIII,65) [8:03]
Doric Music (MB XIV,59) (? John Bull 1562/63-1628) [1:54]
Fantasia in d minor (MB XXVIII,46) [5:39]
Praeludium (MB LV,3) (attr Byrd) [1:14]
Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in F XXVIII,58)* [4:33]
Praeludium in g minor (MB XXVII,1) [0:41]
Fantasia in G (MB XXVIII,63) [5:08]
Fantasia No. 1 in C (earlier version: MB XXVII,26) [9:35]
[MB: Musica Brittannica; FVB: Fitzwilliam Virginal Book]
Glen Wilson, Naoko Akutagawa* (harpsichord)
rec. 13-16 May 2010, Kloster Bronnbach, Wertheim, Germany. DDD
NAXOS 8.572433 [77:30]
Without exaggeration William Byrd can be considered one of the greatest composers
of keyboard music in history. In English history he is second
to none. This disc with the Fantasias from his pen is an impressive
demonstration of his skills as a composer for the keyboard.
Which instrument is the best way of performing them is largely
a matter of preference. Some Fantasias could probably also be
performed at the organ, and the virginals is also a good alternative.
Glen Wilson plays a copy of a harpsichord by the Flemish builder
Ruckers, and that suits the repertoire on this disc quite well.
From the 16th century until well into the 18th the Fantasia
was a popular genre in keyboard music. It has no fixed form,
and finds its origin in improvisation which was a basic skill
of all keyboard players. This explains that Fantasias can strongly
differ from one composer to the other, but also within the oeuvre
of a single composer. The latter is demonstrated on this disc.
What they have largely in common is that they comprise various
sections of contrasting character. Byrd's Fantasias usually
begin with a fugal episode. After that we hear homophonic sections,
episodes of imitative polyphony and virtuosic passagework. In
some Fantasias a song is quoted, such as in the Fantasia
in C which closes this disc, quoting "Sick, sick, in grave
I wish I were". Two songs are quoted in Ut, re, mi, fa, sol,
la in F: first we hear "The woods so wild" which was often
used for variations in English keyboard music, and later "The
shaking of the sheets". This piece is a so-called Hexachord
Fantasia in which the six notes in the title are played
throughout the piece. In this particular Fantasia these notes
are played in the treble from start to finish "by a beginner",
as Glen Wilson writes in his liner-notes. In this recording
that part is played by Naoko Akutagawa - not a beginner, by
the way: she has several excellent recordings to her name.
The other Hexachord Fantasia is Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in
G which includes some strong dissonances. Glen Wilson comes
up with an explanation of this piece's content of which I don't
know how much it is based on speculation from his side. In this
case he sees the Fantasia as a reference to the marriage of
Mary Stuart, the birth of her son (the later King James I) and
the murder of her husband. This would make this piece rather
controversial, considering that Byrd was a Catholic, living
under the reign of the firmly protestant Elizabeth I. This piece
is immediately followed by Ut, mi, re, which - like the
previous piece - is included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book,
as a kind of 'postlude' - probably not an appropriate description
of a piece which is almost as long as the preceding Fantasia.
The Fantasia in d minor is an example of a piece which
could probably also be played at the organ, considering its
"solemn mood", as Wilson writes, and also as it begins with
a quotation of the opening motif of the Marian antiphon Salve
Regina. It is preceded by Doric Music which is anonymous
but is attributed to John Bull, who was one of Byrd's pupils.
It is full of strong dissonances and is used here as a kind
of prelude. In various cases Wilson has done the same, in tracks
3 and 4, 5 and 6 and 14 and 15. In the first case this is indicated
by Byrd himself as the title of the Praeludium to the Fancie
in a minor suggests.
This is a most fascinating disc which sheds light on one of
the genre's of Byrd's large keyboard oeuvre. There is no lack
of recordings of his keyboard music, but a programme which is
devoted to the fantasia is particularly illuminating as it shows
the versatility within this genre. Glen Wilson delivers brilliant
and engaging performances. How much he is involved with this
music is also clear from his liner-notes which are at least
challenging, even if his interpretations of some Fantasias'
content may seem speculative. For instance the song he claims
to be quoted in Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in F: "The shaking
of the sheets" is characterised as a "frank dance of death".
Searching at the internet I learned that this song also is known
with other titles, and probably also other texts. I wonder whether
this implies that there are other plausible explanations for
its inclusion in this piece.
One interesting part of his notes deserves mention: when Philip
II of Spain married Mary Tudor he brought some of his musicians
with him, among them the keyboard player Antonio de Cabezón.
"Cabezón was one of the first to employ the thoroughly
balanced four-part texture in keyboard music which had barely
been seen in England before then, and which suddenly appears
there, fully-fledged, with Byrd". Apparently the English composers
of the time didn't live and work as much in a "splendid isolation"
as one may think. Wilson also mentions the possibility of Byrd
having been in Italy, which could explain the "elaborate Italian
figuration" in some of his works.
The quality of music, performance, instrument and programme
notes makes this a splendid release.
Johan van Veen